Sanford Biggers: Sweet Funk -- An Introspective
The Brooklyn Museum
Through January 8, 2012
Sanford Biggers gathers the imagery and sounds of Blues, the rhythm and movement of break dancing, and the costumes and theatricality of blackface routines and turns them into a very personal discourse on race and culture in our time. The exhibition centers on a large installation of a tree growing through a player piano (Blossom, 2007), which grows through the museum’s fifth-floor rotunda. With passing references to “a tree grows in Brooklyn,” nature versus culture, and Buddha's enlightenment under the bodhi tree, it drives home its point by intermittently playing “Strange Fruit,” the ode to black victims of racism made famous by Billie Holiday.
In a separate room, a two-channel video creates a dreamlike carnival depicting a traveling minstrel. He incorporates his signature lighted sign (a bright-red grinning mouth with marquee light bulbs for teeth) called Cheshire (2008) into a fractured narrative of a man dressed in a red, white, and blue suit (played by Ricardo Castillo) who travels by train through a city and into the countryside. The actor emerges from an ocean, applies makeup backstage, sits with a young boy on the train, and dances in a church, ending up sitting under a tree in a park, where the grinning sign hangs from a branch. References to minstrel shows, the Underground Railroad, Hip Hop culture, and Southern lynchings are abundant, but the disjointed pacing of the narrative prevents an overly didactic reading. Poetry triumphs over adversity, Biggers seems to imply.
Biggers is less successful when the objects he creates are static. Lotus (2007) is a seven-foot diameter circle of glass mounted in a steel frame. The glass is etched with a flower shape, the radiating petals actually comprised of diagrams of decks of slave ship quarters. An overly didactic explanation on a wall label explains how Lotus combines references to Buddhist equanimity and Western cruelty; interesting, probably, but the references to botanical etchings and whatnot weaken any political message.
There is a sense of urgency lacking in many of the smaller pieces. Though interesting constructions in their own right, the sense of conveying a message is overwhelmed by their determined artfulness. Tree branches, pianos, and Salvation Army blankets point to things greater than the sum of their parts, but Biggers doesn’t push the metaphors as hard as he could have. However, when his pieces work (Blossom), they strike with precise wit. - Bradley Rubenstein
The Brooklyn Museum is at 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York.
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.